Kaneaster Hodges Jr., who was sworn in yesterday as the junior senior from Arkansas, is capable, one courtroom adversary says, of giving that august body a little hell - although hell is what he's more apt to be preaching about.
"If he gives the United States Senate as much hell as he gave me in the circuit court of Jackson County," said attorney Herby Branscumb Jr. of Perryville, "he will make a good senator."
Nobody publicy has disagreed with Democratic Party Chairman Branscumb's assessment of the Newport lawyer named Saturday by Gov. David Pryor to succeed John L. McClellan, who died Nov. 28 after serving 35 years.
The appointment of Kaneaster (pronounced Kuh-NEESTER) Hodges - former McClellan worker, former Pryor aide, practicing attorney, cattleman, farmer, ordained Methodist minister and environmentalist - establishes a temporary accord that is expected to be broken next year by a politically devastating battle for the Senate post.
The candidates, at this time, are likely to be Gov. Pryor, who appointed Hodges; Rep. Jim Guy Tucker, who went to law school with the new senator; Rep. Bill V. Alexander, in whose First Congressional District Hodges live, and Rep. Ray Thornton of Sheridan.
Hodges is spared even the thought of participating in the Democratic bloodletting by an Arkansas law that prohibits the appointee from seeking election to a full term.
Minutes after his appointment was announced, Hodges, in his usual straightforward manner, reporters, politicians and wellwishers that after he served the 13 months he would return to Newport and resume practicing law with his brother, David in the firm founded by their late father.
"I think people have to be smitten by politics," Hodges said, "and I'm not smitten. I feel more comfortable here in a small town with my family and friends and with the life-style." He is 39.
He is not interested in politics as a career, Hodges said, because "people treat you in other a normal fashion" when you run for office.
That is just what the people who know him expected Kaneaster Hodges to say.
"I think the governor hit the nail on the head when he said that Kaneaster is his own man," said Orville I. Richardson, publisher of the Newport Independent.
It is difficult to label Hodges, who describes his political philosophy as "electric." Friends say that he's most often a middle-roader, but that he speaks his conviction always.
Says publisher Richardson: "I don't believe that he sees himself or sees the whole political picture in ideological terms. I think that he looks at it one issue at a time and tries to do what's right, as he sees it. I think that's the kind of senator he'll be."
Hodges fended off questions about the Panama Canal treaties and energy legislation, saying that although he was familiar with the issues, it was different now because he would have to vote on them. He would study the issues, and then make his decision.
Hodges is no stranger to bucking officialdom. McClellan and Rep. Alexander strongly supported the controversial Cache River channelization project. Hodges vigorously opposes it, and could be in a position now to kill it because the other senator, Dale L. Bumpers, has not strongly supported it. Hodges says he will await the outcome of a compromise effort between environmentalists and the Army Corps of Engineers before making a final decision.
Hodges was chief legislative aide in charge of the Pryor program in the General Assembly in 1975, and the governor has appointed him to two sensitive posts - the State Natural Heritage Commission, formed to preserve historic lands and sites endangered by development, and the Game and Fish Commission, at a time when it was being criticized for its practices of timber cutting.
Hodges is keeping McClellan's Washington staff, but his decisions probably will be more in line with Bumpers' philosophy than McClellan's.
Hodges worked for McClellan against Pryor, then a United States representative, in a bitter 1972 race for the Senate. He was committed to work for Bumpers' Senate race in 1974, but obtained a release so that he could help manage Pryor's successful run for the governor's mansion.
A Princeton graduate, Hodges obtained a master's degree with honors from the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University and was ordained. He received his law degree from the University of Arkansas in 1967 and gave up the full-time ministry, although he still preaches on occasions.
He has been city attorney for Newport and deputy prosecuting attorney for Jackson County. He is married to the former Lindley Williams and they have two children, Kaneaster 3d and Harryette.